Critical Infrastructure Vulnerability – Water Delivery Systems

Picture of the Baltimore Water Main Break, July 18, 2001

40-inch Water Main Break, Baltimore July 18, 2001. Source: Baltimore Sun

I’ve written several posts in the past on the vulnerabilities of our electrical infrastructure – both to natural and human causes.  Yet, our electrical infrastructure is not the only element of critical infrastructure that is vulnerable to failures and attacks.   We have a very old water infrastructure in our nation, with many areas still maintaining Civil War era cast iron pipes, with an estimated useful life of 150 years (at the time of installation).  How often does your area experience a water main break?

According to the US Conference of Mayors A major symptom of the aging water infrastructure includes 300,000 water main breaks in North America as result of the widespread corrosion problems adding up to a $50.7 billion annual drain on our economy. Leaking pipes are also losing an estimated 2.6 trillion gallons of treated drinking water annually (17 percent of all pumped water in the US), representing $4.1 billion in wasted electricity every year.”

This aging infrastructure has also failed us when we needed it most.  You might recall the Howard Street Rail Tunnel fire in Baltimore, MD on July 18, 2001.  I’ve designed exercise scenarios based upon this incident and have even received feedback from participants about the scenario being unlikely – they are rather surprised to learn that it is based on an actual event.

From the USFA Report on the incident:

“At 3:07 p.m. on Wednesday, July 18, 2001, a CSX Transportation train derailed in the Howard Street Tunnel under the streets of Baltimore, Maryland. Complicating the scenario was the subsequent rupture in a 40-inch water main      that ran directly above the tunnel. The flooding hampered extinguishing efforts, collapsed several city streets, knocked out electricity to about 1,200 Baltimore Gas and Electric customers, and flooded nearby buildings. The crash interrupted a major line associated with the Internet and an MCI WorldCom fiber optic telephone cable.

Throughout the incident, fire officials were plagued with three problems: fighting the fires in the tunnel; the presence of hazardous materials; and the weakening structural integrity of the tunnel and immediate surrounding areas.”

In reading the report you will see that the water main break both help and hurt the response.  The 40-inch main flooded streets and nearby businesses, but also was allowed to flow into the tunnel for a period of two hours, helping to decrease the temperature in the tunnel.  While no reports seem to indicate the impact of the water main break on nearby hydrants, I do include that impact in my exercise scenarios.

Water main breaks plague many areas around the nation.  The lack of potable water resulting from them creates a public health concern, resulting in many businesses and public buildings shutting down and households advised to boil water.  These breaks impact our ability to fight fires and, as a result of undermining, they can cause sink holes and damage to roadways.

In speaking to public works officials through the years, I’ve been told that every water system has leaks of varying severity.  Minor leaks often go undetected for a great period of time.


Securing our water supply is important as well.  Much of our water storage is in reservoirs, open and vulnerable to intentional contamination.  Most reservoirs have some measure of passive security (fences) and some even take more active security precautions.  However, we know that people who are determined can overcome these systems.  Luckily the sheer volume of water in most reservoirs would severely dilute any contamination introduced to them, but there may be agents so concentrated as to inflict harm.  The City of New York, for example, has a massive water supply system, with reservoirs as far north as the Catskills.  Their aqueducts, made famous in the third Die Hard movie, are massive.  The New York City Department of Environmental Protection is charged with securing the City’s water supply and does so through both active and passive security measures as well as active and on-demand water quality sampling.  Most areas, however, don’t have these law enforcement or public health resources available in such abundance.

Water is a critical component of our infrastructure and therefore must be protected.  It’s important not only to business and industry, but is also essential to human life, agriculture, and food production.  Similar to our roadways and electrical infrastructure, our water systems need a plan for restoration and funding to put that plan into action.  Beyond some more capable and financially stable municipalities, most water systems are implementing ad-hoc fixes and are only able to replace small sections of the system each year.

Does your plan account for water system failure?

Tim Riecker

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